Osaka gets title defence off to flying start

  • Suzi Petkovski

Naomi Osaka has eased into the second round of her title defence, dispatching Czech Marie Bouzkova 6-2 6-4 in the opening match of Australian Open 2020 on Rod Laver Arena.

Despite a second-set hiccup, when she dropped serve for 2-4, the defending champion had too much service and end-range firepower for the 21-year-old Czech, making her main draw debut at Melbourne Park.

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“It was really tough for me trying to control my nerves,” Osaka admitted after her 80-minute victory. “I was really thankful to get through in two [sets]. I’ve never played her before. It’s really tough to play someone you’ve never played in the first round of a Grand Slam.”

Osaka prefaced her thanks to the crowd with a typically self-effacing: “You probably didn’t come for me but…”

In fact, there was plenty to love about Osaka’s powerhouse performance - big serving under pressure, the ability to peel open the court and a stream of winners, 29 in all.

Less than a year separated them in age, but the gulf in big-match experience soon became apparent. Bouzkova has one Grand Slam win on her resume, to Osaka’s two majors and world No.1 ranking by age 21.

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But the rising Czech reached the verge of the top 50 last season, and her three top-10 scalps in 2019 - over Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina - all came on hardcourt.

In blissfully mild conditions, both players held their opening serves without a tremor. It was Osaka who first faced breakpoints, in both sets. She responded with forceful play each time. Bouzkova, it seemed, could rally with the world No.3 and stay in the points, but not finish them.

The world No.59 finally got some unexpected help from Osaka. At 3-2 in the second set and deuce, Bouzkova conjured an angled forehand return winner and suddenly became animated, releasing a cry of “Come on!” On breakpoint, Osaka steered a forehand long to finally drop serve. “Yes! Come on!” exhorted the Czech.

But serving for a 5-2 lead, Bouzkova opened and ended the game with double faults, and received a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct at the changeover. 

Crisis averted, Osaka broke for 5-4 with two backhand winners and swept four straight games for the win.

Osaka will now face China’s Zheng Saisai, who beat Russian qualifier Anna Kalinskaya 6-3 6-2.